The Clean Air of Freedom
In their new book, “Treading Boldly Through a Pornographic World,” Josh Glaser and Daniel Weiss tell the stories of parents who suddenly noticed changes in the behavior of their teenage sons. These young men were inexplicably losing interest in hobbies, relationships, sports, and other activities that once excited and motivated them. They became reclusive, dismissive—shadows of their former selves. In such cases, the parents soon discovered what was going on: their sons had stumbled across and become addicted to online pornography, and this nuclear blast of sexual stimulation had made everything else in life seem dull by comparison.
Men a few years older than these boys are reporting another side-effect of compulsive pornography use: they’re losing interest in sex, itself, or even losing the ability to perform. Writing at The Guardian in 2019, Amy Fleming documented a troubling shift in the demand for erectile dysfunction medications like Viagra. For many years, the core market for these drugs was “older men in poor health.” But according to recent studies and surveys, up to a third of young, healthy men now report experiencing sexual dysfunction.
One educator told the Guardian that “until 2002, the incidence of men under 40 with erectile dysfunction was around 2-3%. Since 2008, when free-streaming, high-definition porn became so readily available, it has steadily risen.” One sex therapist quoted in a Rolling Stone article on porn-induced sexual dysfunction said the same: “I have absolutely seen a pretty drastic increase in ED rates among young men, especially in the last two, three years. My average client base is starting to get younger and younger.”
It’s a phenomenon with only emerging scientific support. But the anecdotal evidence is sobering. Online forums and websites have sprung up filled with testimonies from men who say addiction to pornography caused them to lose their interest in real sex. Some of these communities function as support groups for members who want to kick the habit. Scrolling through their stories is eye-opening. They confirm how pornography use robbed them not only of healthy sexual function, but of their zest for life: “Porn just makes everything else seem a whole lot less exciting,” said one user. “You start to realize you’re not as passionate about doing the things you love,” said another.” A third wrote hauntingly: “You become numb to most things in life and depending on how bad your addiction, [you’re] reduced to constant porn watching to feel good. It’s a sad way of living.”
We have a pretty good idea of how and why porn blunts all other enjoyable experiences in life. As Gary Wilson explains in his book, “Your Brain on Porn,” the human brain responds to the torrent of dopamine pornography triggers by reducing its overall number of dopamine receptors. This is why, like drug addicts, pornography users find they must search out ever more extreme and shocking material in order to achieve the same “high.” But because those same receptors are involved in all pleasurable experiences in life, sexual or otherwise, porn users often find that their desire for all other activities and experiences flatlines, as well.
All of this makes sense when you consider that pornography isn’t a natural stimulus. It’s not something our brains or bodies were designed to handle. Our natural responses, fine-tuned for real human contact and ordered toward emotional bonding and reproduction, become overloaded and fried by the concentrated neural narcotic we call pornography.
Thankfully, our brains are pliable and adaptable, and even though bad habits alter our neural circuitry, good habits can restore it. The same forums are filled with triumphant posts by users who’ve conquered pornography addictions. The recurring themes in their stories are a delight to read. They report greater energy, a renewed interest in their work and hobbies, stronger friendships, and healthier relationships with the opposite sex. Some experience a kind of euphoria when they discover for the first time in years that they are able to enjoy ordinary life again, to look people in the eyes without embarrassment, and to no longer be counting down the hours till their next fix.
Wilson calls this “rebooting,” and says it takes anywhere from weeks to months, depending on the person: “By avoiding artificial sexual stimulation you are shutting down and restarting the brain, restoring it to its original factory settings.”
One ecstatic user in a forum I browsed while writing this went so far as to declare: “If a man is able to control his sexual urges, he’s already fixed 90% of his problems in life.” He may have overstated the matter a little bit, but you can hear his elation at finally being able to experience life and freedom again.
These stats and stories confirm something Josh Glaser and Daniel Weiss argue in their book and in our recent conversation on Upstream: that saying “no” to pornography doesn’t mean denying ourselves sexual knowledge or satisfaction. It doesn’t mean becoming repressed prudes or keeping ourselves or our kids in the dark about the full range of embodied experience. It means opening ourselves again to real sexual fulfillment and thriving relationships, and even restoring our God-given ability to take delight in ordinary life.
The overwhelming message of those who have escaped or are trying to escape the grip of lust—even those who profess no faith in Christ—is that porn doesn’t make anyone happy. Bondage to this toxic habit isn’t liberating—it’s slavery. And even those who don’t share God’s glorious vision for sex as described in Scripture can’t help but celebrate when they breathe the clean air of freedom.
How much more can Christians—who understand the full beauty of the one-flesh union and the mutual self-giving for which our minds and bodies were crafted—celebrate and pursue that freedom? And how much better equipped are we to instill that passion for life into our kids? I hope this week’s conversation helps you catch that vision, and inspires you to boldly lead your family toward true love in a world full of counterfeits.